If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all - applied to footwear: hide your ugly toes. It isn’t that sandals or open-toe heels are unacceptable, so long as the wearer observes foot hygiene. But there still seems to be a psychological barrier that prevents us from accepting Vibram's Five Fingers as date night footwear.
Modern footwear has elevated the sneaker to blank-canvas status. But as self-expression via footwear has evolved in recent years toes have been largely neglected. Perhaps Modern Western conservatism is to blame, having long demonized toes, made them something you hide.
But this narrative has seen a shift recently. With a better understanding of human anatomy, and a substantial effort by cultural purveyors such as Maison Margiela, ASICS, and Nike, the perception of toes in modern footwear design is on the verge of liberation. A vital catalyst in this change: the Tabi.
Tabi is a traditional Japanese sock, usually worn for celebratory occasions along with traditional Japanese sandals such as Zouri and Geta. It is believed that the Tabi was originally imported from China in the 5th century, then called Shitouzu.
Around the 7th century, the Shitouzu, made of materials such as silk and hemp, was popular but limited among the bourgeoisies of Japan. The Shitouzu symbolized status according to their color and material. However, as cotton proliferated through Chinese trade the Shitouzu became the more democratic Tabi, a staple item among Japanese commoners.
You wouldn’t be wrong to call them ninja-shoes; the Tabi was indeed the footwear of choice when infiltrating castles of feudal lords, customized to make as little noise as possible. Another fun fact: it was considered rude to wear Tabi with sandals in public, which is why Japanese samurais are usually depicted with sandals and bare feet.
By the 18th & 19th centuries, the Tabi had gone through many iterations, which had promoted the sock to footwear called the Jika-Tabi. Complete with rubber soles made available by the industrial revolution and more durable construction, the Jika-Tabi became the footwear of choice for the blue-collar workers of Japan. As Japan entered its modern era, however, and swapped its Kimono for suits and dresses, the Jika-Tabi slowly became a novelty item.
This is not to say that the Tabi was completely lost to history. Although a rare sight, Tabis are still worn by some Japanese workers, and are a uniform for Japanese festivals and celebratory occasions. There was even a concious effort to export the Tabi style from Japan, though it was an uphill battle convincing the masses overseas to take ninja-shoes seriously.
Markedly, in the 1951 Boston Marathon, Japanese runner Shigeki Tanaka won the race wearing a pair of split-toed running shoe provided by ASICS (formerly known as Onitsuka). Even still, the Tabi remained largely obscure.
Maison Martin Margiela
It wasn’t until Maison Martin Margiela’s first women's runway show in 1988 that the Tabi re-entered mainstream consciousness.
Before the revered French luxury fashion house was founded, Martin Margiela had produced a series of footwear sold exclusively in a boutique called Cocodrillo in Antwerp, Germany. Managed by a partnership between Geert Bruloot, and Eddy Michiels, Cocodrillo was a small shoe store that opened in 1984, most memorable for exclusively retailing products made by the infamous Antwerp Six, the group of '90-'91 graduate fashion designers from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp.
The group consisted of Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, and Marina Yee. Often mistakenly ascribed membership, Martin Margiela is an honorary member as he came to prominence around the same time. Notably, it was also around this time Margiela started working for Jean Paul Gaultier as an assistant.
When he founded his fashion house in 1988, Margiela was seeking to debut an unusual silhouette of footwear. Margiela took inspiration from Tabi. In a rare retelling of the footwear’s inception, Margiela told Bruloot, “I wanted to create an ‘invisible’ shoe, the illusion of a barefoot walking on a high, chunky heel.”
When it came time to physically create the footwear, however, the Belgian designer had a tough time finding a cobbler that accepted the radical split-toe shoe design for production. Fortunately, Bruloot knew a cobbler who previously worked for the Japanese designer Tokio Kumagai, Mr. Zagato. As Bruloot recounted, Mr. Zagato was recruited to produce the split-toe shoe for Margiela over dinner, where he was instantly convinced when shown the Tabi boot.
Margiela’s debut runway show was held at the Café de la Gare in Paris, France. The entirety of the collection was astonishing, and solidified the Belgian designer’s name within the industry. The very best was saved for the last moment.
In the show’s climax, now regarded as a legendary moment in fashion history, models arrived in white gowns with beige-colored boots drenched in red paint, leaving what seemed like footprints on the white mesh laid on the runway path. In recounting the dramatic decision, Margiela explained, “I thought the audience should notice the new footwear. And what would be more evident than its footprint?” Remarkably, the stained runway mesh was later turned into a waistcoat for a following collection, showcasing the core value Maison Martin Margiela is regarded for.
That first runway show was influential. Margiela recounted, “In the beginning there was no budget for a new form. So I had no other choice than to continue with [the Tabi syle] if I wanted shoes. But after several collections people started asking for them. And they wanted more… and they didn’t stop asking, thank God!” Although borne of budgetary necessity, the recurrence of the Tabi boot on proceeding collections only strengthened the demand for the mythical shoe, and proceeded to influence the fashion industry as a whole.
Discussion in the high fashion sphere trickled down to the streets and allowed for further experimentation on the toe-splitting silhouette. 1996 marked the release of the Nike Air Rift. Designer Kip Buck had taken inspiration from Kenyan barefoot distance runners, where the Air Rift’s split-toe design was rooted in promoting unrestricted natural motion.
The original colorway had the Kenyan national flag’s color blocking, and the name Air Rift was itself a reference to the Great Rift Valley. Although undoubtedly divisive, similar to the evolution of the Tabi to the Jika-Tabi, the Air Rift was an important sneaker in paving the way for experimental sneakers such as the Sock Runner, the Air Presto, and eventually the ground-breaking Nike Free technology.
Culturally, the Air Rift was a hit in Japan and Europe. Forming a spiritual kinship with the Tabi, the Air Rift was a Harajuku staple at the time of release. In Europe, the Air Rift became a collector’s item, some fetching over $700 per pair. Throughout the years, the Air Rift got multiple restocks, keeping its cult-following alive. In fact, Air Rift saw a collaborative release with famed actress Halle Berry in the Shale/Ceramic colorway as part of Nike’s Artist Series that launched from 2002 to 2004.
ASICS X JAXA Program
If you still think Tabis are novelty items, you might be right. But consider this. In 2006 ASICS, in collaboration with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), developed and delivered a pair of sneakers catered for a zero-gravity environment.
In an attempt to improve the astronaut's muscle engagement, especially their calf muscles, the space sneakers were designed to have, yes you guessed it, a split-toe design. Alas, the Tabi-inspired space sneakers never saw full production, but this anecdote should speak to the breadth of the Tabi.
We grow to appreciate different silhouettes of footwear over the years. But it doesn’t happen overnight. Cultural purveyors such as Margiela, ASICS, and Nike to name a few, help drive this shift, as they did with the Tabi.
In the year 2021, what can be recognized as snowballing effect years in the making allows for further experimentation on the silhouette. Although perhaps we still cannot quite accept Vibram’s Five Fingers, with the recent Nike ISPA collection heavily implementing the split-toe construction, along with Maison Margiela’s continual push for the now androgynous Tabi series, the once-obscure split-toe sock may be on the verge of widespread acceptance.